Monday, August 10, 2009

The Hard Problem of Abortion

Let me repeat my views on abortion, in case people don't know what I have said. There are two conceptions of the career of humans which strike me as being positions a reasonable person could take. A reasonable person could take the view that the career of life of a human is defined by biological identity, which goes from conception to death. How one defines death on this view is difficult, since the brain death criteria used at the end of life would, if applied to the beginning of life, would say life begins with "brain birth," when brain activity begins.

The other view is to see the life of a person as a series of mental states, which means that taking the life of the person before mental states begin is morally different from interrupting the series of mental events. (Which, BTW, is what killing a sleeping or comatose person would do). This does comport with the "brain death" view of death. It has the disadvantage of making the beginning of life more difficult to define.

My point here is that each of these views has advantages, and neither of them seems provably wrong. I can't resolve the question conclusively one way or the other. I haven't endorsed the second criterion, I have just said that it's one of two plausible options. As I see it, we are in a position of reasonable doubt. Maybe you think you can dispel this doubt with some great argument. But so far, it seems to me to be above my pay grade.

But here the Deer Hunter argument comes into play. If you're deer hunting, and you are in doubt as to whether something is a deer or a person, don't shoot. (Maybe I should call this the quail hunter argument, in honor of Dick Cheney). So if someone is wondering whether to get an abortion or not, I would say that you may turn out to be killing a person, so without a very powerful moral reason to abort, don't do it.

When it comes to the legal side, however, I remember that we don't put people in jail if we can't prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We are willing to let people loose who have killed someone, if we aren't sure. Then I have to ask what effect it would have to actually outlaw abortion. If we knew for sure that all abortion were homicides, that would be one thing. But in the light of reasonable doubt concerning the status of the fetus, the attempt to discourage abortion should be through moral persuasion rather than the coercive power of government. In a different world I might see the legal situation differently, but under the circumstances, this may be the best we can do.

Except when it comes to late-term abortions. Those should be outlawed, period.

I wish the issue were clearer and easier than it is. I know for some of you this is an easy question. Maybe I am overlooking the obvious in some way. But that is how I see it.


Edwardtbabinski said...

Abortion as such is not discussed in the Bible, so any explanation of why it is not legislated or commented on is speculative.

A key text for examining ancient Israelite attitudes [toward the fetus] is Exodus 21:22-25: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Several observations can be made about this passage.

The Hebrew text at v. 22 literally reads “and there is no harm,” implying that contrary to current sensibilities, the miscarriage itself was not considered serious injury. The monetary judgment given to the woman’s husband indicates that the woman’s experience of the miscarriage is not of significance, and that the damage is considered one to property rather than to human life. This latter observation is further supported by the contrast with the penalties for harm to the woman herself.

SOURCE: Drorah O’Donnell Setel, “Abortion,” The Oxford Guide to Ideas & Issues of the Bible, ed. by Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 2001)

There is no biblical proof-text against abortion. Deuteronomy 30:19 (“choose life”) has nothing to do with abortion; it has to do with being party to God’s covenant with Israel. Psalm 139:13-18 is less relevant to the issue than most people think; a careful reading of that psalm reveals that the “mother” in whose “womb” the psalmist was known by God is Mother Earth (notice the parallelism between “my mother’s womb” and “the depths of the earth” in the inclusio of vv. 13-15). Exodus 21 is very difficult, but it certainly does not speak directly to abortion; at most, it relates to an accidentally induced miscarriage, though it may refer to a premature birth. That interpretive decision is crucial, and I’m not sure how to resolve it. As far as I can tell, the only biblical passage that I know of that directly mentions a practice like we would think of as abortion curses a man who did not practice it on the fetal Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:16-18). Now, having said that, I hasten to repeat that my general default position is anti-abortion (I am willing to listen to arguments on specific cases, though I’ve never had any input into a specific case), and I think a biblical case can be made for an anti-abortion position. But it must be a cumulative theological case, not a list of proof-texts--for there are no such proof-texts.

SOURCE: Dr. R. Christopher Heard [Old Testament professor at Pepperdine University, lifelong member of Churches of Christ], “Is the Bible Anti-Abortion?” at his blog, Higgaion, Friday, November 18, 2005

Edwardtbabinski said...


Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed. Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying, A man child is born unto thee; making him very glad. And let that man be as the cities which the LORD overthrew, and repented not: and let him hear the cry in the morning, and the shouting at noontide; Because he slew me not from the womb; or that my mother might have been my grave, and her womb to be always great with me. Wherefore came I forth out of the womb to see labour and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?
- Jeremiah 20:14-18

[This is the only Biblical passage that directly and indisputably mentions a practice that we would today think of as “abortion,” but notice, Jeremiah is cursing a man for NOT aborting the fetal Jeremiah.--E.T.B.]

Or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light. There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master.
- Job 3:16-19

If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he. For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness. Moreover he hath not seen the sun, nor known any thing: this hath more rest than the other.
- Ecclesiastes 6:3-5


According to the Bible, God Himself is ready, willing and able to abort fetuses:

Their fruit shalt Thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men.
- Psalm 21:10

The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they are born... let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
- Psalm 58:3,8

As for Israel, their glory shall fly away like a bird, and from the womb, and from the conception...Give them, O Lord: what will Thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts...they shall bear no fruit...
- Hosea 9:11-16

Notice that the prophet Hosea is pleading with his God to punish the Israelites by murdering their unborn babies. The Bible never really provides a logical rationale as to why fetuses, babies, and children must be punished for the sins of their parents and others. Some would suggest that for God to kill unborn babies for their parent’s sins is somewhat misdirected retribution.

Gene Kasmar, WHY…The Brooklyn Center High School Bible Challenge. Part 1: The Evidence

Edwardtbabinski said...


Every living thing on the earth was drowned [by the Hebrew LORD--which included pregnant women and babies]...Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
- Genesis 7:23

Thus saith the LORD...Slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.
- 1 Samuel 15:3

Joshua destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD commanded.
- Joshua 10:40

The LORD delivered them before us; and we destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones.
- Deuteronomy 2:33-34

Kill every male among the little ones.
- Numbers 31:17

The wind of the LORD shall come up from the wilderness, and his spring shall become dry, and...Samaria shall become desolate...they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.
- Hosea 13:15-16

With thee will I [the LORD] break in pieces the young man and the maid.
- Jeremiah 51:22

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
- Psalm 137:9

According to the Bible, God gave orders to kill children and to rip open the bodies of pregnant women. The pestilences were sent by God. The frightful famine, during which the dying child with pallid lips sucked the withered bosom of his dead mother, was sent by God. God drowned an entire world with the exception of eight persons. Imagine how such acts would have stained the reputation of the devil!

Robert G. Ingersoll


According to the God of the Bible it was more important to stone a woman to death if she should “entice you to follow after other gods,” than it was to rescue the life of any fetus she might have been carrying.

It was more important to stone a woman to death the day after her wedding night “if she was discovered not to have been a virgin,” than it was to wait and see if she might have conceived new life that night.

It was more important to stone a woman to death for “adultery,” than to wait and see if she might be pregnant.

It was more important to stone a woman to death for “failing to cry out while being raped within earshot of the city,” than it was to spare the life she might have conceived during that ordeal, during which the rapist may have held a knife to her throat, or strangled her into silence and submission.

And what about the test of “bitter water” mentioned in chapter five of the book of Numbers? The test consisted of mixing dust from the floor of the Hebrew tabernacle with “holy water” to make a concoction that a woman drank to test whether or not she had committed adultery. If she had, it says, “her belly will swell and her thigh will rot.” Scholars have pointed out that “thigh” is a euphemism for sexual organs. So if the woman had committed adultery and had conceived as a result, then the “bitter water” would induce an abortion (“her thigh would rot”). (I wonder if this means that Bible-believing women who are accused of having affairs ought to swallow some dirt from the floor of their church mixed with “holy water?” Or better yet, swallow an abortion pill like RU-486 in front of the whole congregation?)

And what about children who “curse their parents?” The Bible says, “Kill them!” (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9; Mat. 15:4; Mark 7:10) The Bible does not say how old the child has to be, but it does emphatically state they must “surely be put to death” should they “curse their parents.”

Ah, the good old days, when God fearing people had higher priorities than “saving fetal lives.” They were too busy stoning whomever enticed them to worship other gods, stoning adulteresses, stoning women who weren’t virgins on their wedding night, stoning women who “failed to cry out” during rape, and stoning sassy children. In other words they were too busy with all of those higher priorities to worry about “the fate of fetuses.”


unkleE said...


I think I agree totally with what you have said - I imagine that's a great comfort to you! : )

I have always felt there was uncertainty, and always felt we should take the conservative view due to lack of certainty (my parallel would be the precautionary principle in environmental management).

But you gave me two additional ideas. 1. The reasonableness of the mental state approach (though I don't think I agree with it, I can see it's reasonable), and 2. The wrongness of imprisoning people (or worse, killing them or bombing their clinics) when there is reasonable doubt.

Well done, and thanks.

bossmanham said...


I think you are misreading that passage. Most translations render the passage not in terms of a miscarriage, but as a premature birth. Then it speaks of the punishment from any further injury. "22 If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. 23"But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (NASB).

In other words, if there is no further damage to the baby, then the man is to be fined, but it there is further injury, an eye for an eye etc. The passage also gives the fetus the status of a "life" in verse 23, since the punishment required is a "life for life."

Whatever the case, defending abortion with this obscure of a reference is a bad idea, especially with the life-preserving tone of the rest of the Bible.

Anonymous said...

"Exodus 21 is very difficult, but it certainly does not speak directly to abortion; at most, it relates to an accidentally induced miscarriage, though it may refer to a premature birth. That interpretive decision is crucial, and I’m not sure how to resolve it"

if there's a "chance" it refers to premature birth then there is no crucial certainty. without certainty there is doubt!
what moral position one takes with this doubt now becomes the crucial factor.

under the premature birth interpretation accidentally death of a fetus would result in life for life.
I wonder about purposeful death of a fetus.

Craig French said...

Maybe I am overlooking the obvious in some way.

Quite certainly you are

Peter Pike said...

Victor Reppert said:
How one defines death on this view is difficult, since the brain death criteria used at the end of life would, if applied to the beginning of life, would say life begins with "brain birth," when brain activity begins.

I don't think it's as difficult as that. If you turn off all extraordinary care machines on someone who is "brain dead" then she either continues functioning or dies. (Note: IMO, which I could argue for later if need be, extraordinary care wouldn't include feeding tubes, but would include such things as ventilators.)

In other words, "brain death" is only a problem because machines can keep people's bodies functioning; but a zygote will not die in the absense of such machines. Seems to be a pretty significant difference to me...

man with desire said...

Information about abort:

Kyle said...

You know, I'd be happy with a law that made it a felony to commit an abortion after brain waves could be detected, even while continuing to agitate against using brain death as an accurate measure of end of life.

Peter Pike said...


I agree with you on that too. But then Reppert will counter that that means that pro-lifers aren't "serious" about saving the unborn because we're supporting a law that only makes it illegal in SOME circumstances and would use that as an argument that we're hypocritical rather than acting pragmatically to save as many as we can at this particular point in time.

It's like if it was legal to kill black people and there were those who argued that this was immoral, but society as a whole said it was someone's right to do so. If we were able to get a law passed that said you couldn't kill a black person younger than 30 years old, and since there was no hope of passing any other law sparing all black people at that point in time, you wouldn't be a hypocrite for supporting that law. You would, in fact, be saving as many as possible since that law will save a certain group that would otherwise be killable if the law was NOT passed. And in the meantime, you'd also be praying for a change in views so that one day you COULD get the law passed that would make it illegal to use skin color as a justification for murder, no matter the age of the victim.